Israel occupying Palestine echoes France colonising Algeria: Analysts

Scholars of Algerian history rule say they see a lot of parallels with Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory.

People protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Algiers, Algeria October 19, 2023. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina
People in Algiers, Algeria, protest in support of Palestinians during Israel's war on Gaza [File: Ramzi Boudina/Reuters]

Thousands of protesters gathered in a town under colonial rule in the 1940s. They raised national flags and placards and called for self-determination.

The authorities tried to confiscate the flags, triggering a riot that killed several officers and settlers.

The colonial army, its settler militias and police responded by bombing villages and homes where “rebels” were ostensibly hiding.

Thousands were killed and entire families wiped out.

Echoes of the past

That was not Palestine, but Setif, Algeria. And it was not Israel’s occupation, but France’s.

“Setif revealed the hypocrisy of the liberation of Europe as it maintained a settler colony,” said Muriam Hala Davis, a historian of Algeria at the University of California in Santa Cruz, referring to the incident that came as Europe celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Several scholars believe Israel’s violent occupation of Palestinian lands has sharp parallels with France’s 132-year colonisation of Algeria, which ended in 1962 after an eight-year war for independence.

France displaced Algerians, confined them to small spaces that could not sustain human life and armed French settlers against them.

Israel has done the same since the Nakba in 1948 when Zionist militias ethnically cleansed at least 750,000 Palestinians to establish Israel on top of the ruins of their homes and history.

It occupied more land in the 1967 war, subjugating Palestinians to military rule since then and expanding its settlements on their land, which are illegal under international law.

“[In both contexts], we can talk about the disregard and dehumanisation of Arab life … either as part of Islamophobia or anti-Arab sentiment,” Davis said.

Israel’s dehumanisation of Palestinians is essential to justify its occupation and repression – both to its own citizens and to its Western allies, scholars told Al Jazeera.

Rights groups say Palestinians are portrayed as a security and demographic threat to Jewish Israelis, necessitating violent raids, a blockade on Gaza since 2007 and a separation wall that fragments and reduces freedom of movement in the occupied West Bank.

“There is certainly a continuum that has some deep resonances,” Davis said.

Over the past 17 years, Israel has launched five wars on Gaza to “mow the lawn”, a phrase Israel uses to refer to its goal of degrading Hamas’s military capabilities by fighting periodic wars.

Palestinian civilians have been the biggest casualties of each conflict.

The West Bank has not been spared either. Israel killed thousands of civilians during two Intifadas (uprisings) in 1987 and 2000 against Israel’s ever-deepening occupation.

Both Intifadas started off largely nonviolent, yet Israel responded by killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

A mural on a building showing a map of Palestine
A mural on a building in Beddawi refugee camp was painted during the first intifada. New paintwork avoided painting over the mural to keep it intact. November 29, 2023 [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Philippeville to Gaza

Israel’s latest war on Gaza began after Hamas-led attacks on Israeli communities and military outposts on October 7, in which 1,139 people were killed and 250 taken captive.

Over the past eight months, Israel has responded by killing more than 36,000 Palestinians, displacing more than 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and reducing most of the enclave to rubble.

Israel’s military conduct has drawn comparisons with France’s operations against the National Liberation Front, an armed group better known by its French acronym, FLN.

Like Hamas, the FLN carried out a surprise operation on the settler town of Philippeville in August 1955, attacking settlers and military installations and killing more than 120 people.

Similar to Israel, the French authorities responded by arming settlers and coordinating attacks on several Algerian villages that killed about 12,000 people, mostly civilians.

The attack on Philippeville is on a long list of brutal attacks and incidents that unfolded during Algeria’s war for independence.

Israel’s current practice of trying to confine millions of Palestinians to “safe zones” in Gaza also echoes the eviction of hundreds of thousands of Algerians from their villages during the war, said Terrance Peterson, a scholar on the Algerian war at the University of Florida.

Women throw roses into the Seine river
Women throw roses into the Seine river to commemorate the brutal repression of an October 17, 1961 protest for Algerian independence, during which at least 120 Algerians were killed. On October 17, 2021, in Paris [Alain Jocard/AFP]

France bombed villages and relocated their inhabitants to “regroupement centres”, which were camps surrounded by barbed wire where people died from malnutrition and disease.

But unlike Gaza, Peterson told Al Jazeera, these areas were never bombed or attacked.

“I think the logic is the same in that [Israel and France] wanted to separate and isolate the civilian population into ‘safe zones’ in order to survey them and separate them from the insurgents,” he said.

“That means there were forbidden zones and anyone in those forbidden zones would be killed.”


Israel and France both tried to brand their enemies as rapists, according to Sara Rahnama, a scholar of the gendered history of the French-Algerian war

“In November and December, … the response to mass protests [for a ceasefire in Gaza] was that Hamas intentionally used rape as a weapon of war and that is a marker of how depraved they are and how necessary this struggle is for the values of Western civilisation,” Rahnama said.

She believes the Israeli accusations fit into a broader historical pattern whereby Indigenous populations are portrayed as morally and sexually depraved to justify confiscating their land and using violence against them.

“I remember thinking that this is a really old claim. From the very beginning of the French colonial project, they [propagated ideas] of Muslim sexual and gender inferiority. That was imperative to how the French legitimised their [colonial] project.”

The UN said it has “reasonable grounds” to believe some incidences of sexual violence occurred on October 7 as well as against captives taken by Hamas although it is impossible to determine the scope of such violence.

Hamas has repeatedly denied the accusations.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian legal expert, said Israel’s allegation of mass rapes on October 7 also reminded her of how French colonial authorities framed Muslim Algerians.

“The [French] had talked about mass rape and mentioned stories such as breasts being chopped off and fondled by FLN fighters,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Fast forward to October 7 … and Israel did the exact same thing. [Israel] portrayed [the attack] as super savage in order to elevate their [own status] and to carry out a massive genocide.”

Is the goal the erasure of Palestinians?

Israel has long said it would investigate Israeli soldiers and settlers accused of perpetrating human rights abuses against Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

But scholars and rights activists said Israel’s legal system is designed to legitimise its settlements and occupation, not seek justice.

From 2017 to 2021, investigations into Israeli soldiers led to indictments in less than 1 percent of the cases, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group.

Palestinian youths
Palestinians who took part in a protest at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound are arrested by Israeli security forces in the Old City in East Jerusalem [File: Menahem Kahana/AFP]

Palestinians are tried in military courts and face a conviction rate of 99 percent. In many cases, Palestinians are also held without charge or trial under “administrative detention”, a relic of British colonisation in the area under which their lawyers are unable to see evidence against them.

“In the case of Palestine, … there is a legal system that facilitates a colonial process, and … its aim is the erasure of the natives,” Buttu said. “There is just no way that you will have a legal system that protects Palestinians. The national aim is the erasure of Palestinians.”

Davis added that both Israel and France entertained the belief that they could oversee a project of “good colonisation”.

In the 1950s, some French reformists called for giving political rights to a minority of Algerians who fought with France in World War II. Others advocated giving Muslim Algerians some form of self-rule in parts of the colony.

Davis said these calls are similar to Israelis who advocate for giving Palestinians limited rights or sovereignty.

“There is a fundamental fantasy … where both France and Israel blame a few bad apples for a structural project of white supremacy that was behind [France’s project] in Algeria or Israel’s project as a Jewish state,” she said.

“For those of us who have organised around Palestine, we are now horrified by the scale of the violence [in Gaza]. But none of us are fundamentally surprised by a genocide that underpins [Israel’s settler] project.”

Source: Al Jazeera